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Senior Correspondent

Q. I know lead poisoning is a danger to children, but what effect does it have on adults?

It’s true that children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults because lead is more easily absorbed by growing bodies. The tissue of children also is more sensitive to lead's damaging effects. However, adults can suffer from lead exposure.

Lead can affect many parts of your body, but the primary victim is the nervous system, which can be weakened by exposure to this metal.

Lead exposure can cause anemia, make you irritable, affect your memory and ability to concentrate, and it can increase blood pressure, particularly in older people. Lead can also lead to digestive problems and cataracts. Exposure to high lead levels can be fatal.

Symptoms of lead poisoning in adults may include: numbness in extremities, weak muscles, headache, abdominal pain, loss of memory, mood disorders and abnormal sperm.

Lead is a natural component of the earth's crust. However, people have spread lead throughout our environment by burning fossil fuels, mining, and manufacturing. Two common sources of lead in our environment were paint and gasoline; lead has been banned from both of them.
The following are sources of lead exposure:

WATER. Plumbing can contain lead, which you cannot see, smell or taste. You can have the water tested.

PAINT. The federal government banned lead-based paint from housing in 1978. Many homes built before 1978 have lead-based paint both inside and outside. This kind of paint can also be found on old toys and furniture. Small children can be exposed by eating lead-based paint chips or chewing on objects painted with lead-based paint.

SOIL. Lead from exterior paint, old leaded gas or other sources can be absorbed by soil that you can track into your home.

DUST. Household dust can contain lead from old paint or soil brought inside.

CONTAINERS. Food or liquids stored in lead crystal or lead-glazed pottery can become contaminated because lead can leach in from these containers.

HOBBIES. Refinishing furniture, pottery and making stained glass artifacts are hobbies that use lead.

FOLK REMEDIES. There are potions that contain lead such as greta (lead oxide) andazarcon (lead tetroxide) that have been used to treat intestinal problems.

CANNED FOOD. In 1995, the United States banned the use of lead solder for sealing food cans, but some foods still are imported from other countries where lead solder may be used.

COSMETICS. Kohl, a mixture used in eye makeup, frequently has high levels of lead.

Here are some steps you can take to prevent exposure to lead:

  • Clean up paint chips immediately.
  • Clean floors, window frames, window sills, and other surfaces weekly.
  • Wash hands often.
  • Clean or remove shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in lead from soil.
  • Repair damaged painted surfaces
  • Plant grass to cover soil with high lead levels.
  • To remove lead hazards permanently, you must hire a certified lead-abatement contractor. Contact the National Lead Information Center (NLIC) to locate certified contractors in your area. Call NLIC at 1(800) 424-LEAD [5323]. You can email NLIC on this website: http://www.epa.gov/lead/pubs/nlic.htm.

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